Dining Out: Greek Revival

A Wicker Park spot breathes new life into an old cuisine; the Ravinia crowd finally gets a good dining option

Taxim’s mezedes of piperies (roasted peppers with capers and kefalograviera; revithia (puréed chickpeas with sautéed green chickpeas); and marinated olives
Taxim’s mezedes of piperies (roasted peppers with capers and kefalograviera; revithia (puréed chickpeas with sautéed green chickpeas); and marinated olives

Just when it seems that nobody with a lick of sense would open a place that didn’t have Dunkin’ as its first name, along comes David Schneider with Taxim. Against the odds, a young Wicker Park crowd has stormed the new Greek/ Asia Minor restaurant for vegetable-centric mezedes and big meaty entrées served by an enthusiastic waitstaff. Schneider, a gregarious 29-year-old, is having the time of his life amid the bustle. The first time I spotted him, he was working the room in chef’s casuals and a Sox cap. Later in the evening, he was spiffed up in proper GM attire, a better fit for his room, with its white plaster archways, Byzantine-style hanging lamps, pillowed banquettes, and copper-clad tables.

Schneider says he picked up his cooking style from his Greek mother and from eating in Aegean Island villages with extended family. But don’t expect the endless parade of Greek standards awash in oregano, lemon, olive oil, and garlic that you get on Halsted. Schneider is up to something else entirely. Yep, all those flavors go into Taxim’s crisp-skinned, juicy roasted chicken, but the oregano is wild Greek oregano, the lemon has been preserved by ouzo, and the olive oil boasts a seriously fruity tone. The potatoes? Deeply browned fingerlings with whole garlic cloves. Schneider’s focus reflects the diversified Greek settlements of the old Ottoman Empire, which means you can get house-marinated Thracian and Chalcidician olives in addition to the ubiquitous Kalamatas. Instead of the same old retsina and roditis, the 30-bottle wine list holds stylish Greek varietals from quality producers like Skouras and Sigalas.

The fresh vegetables put typical Greektown fare to shame. Order the piperies and you’ll get a colorful riot of zingy-fresh roasted seasonal peppers tossed with capers, garlic confit, and kefalograviera (grated raw-sheep’s-milk cheese). I grew up in the South on okra—fried, pickled, and in gumbo—but never have I tasted it as good as Taxim’s bamies, tender inch-long baby okra tossed with chopped sun-dried tomatoes and fresh coriander. Even in a room noisier than the battles between the Spartans and the Persians in the movie 300, my table’s commotion over this dish was so extreme that Schneider noticed. He told us he imports the okra from Egypt. “Nobody in America bothers to pick them so young,” he says. “And there’s no sliminess to them at all at this stage.” So much for local always being best.

Besides the terrific chicken, my favorite entrée is a duo of small zucchini and eggplant stuffed with minced goat in pomegranate reduction with sour barberries and creamy house-made yogurt served on earthy bulgur pilaf. Or maybe it’s the duck gyros. Schneider grills the chewy pita of the Pontian Greeks living in northern Turkey and rolls it around spit-roasted and pomegranate-glazed duck. That left just enough room for a piece of delightfully unsweet chocolate semolina halva (think “cake”). If the Greeks and Trojans had feasted together on this stuff, they might have forgotten all that fuss about Helen.

* * *

By themselves, hot Cheddar-chive biscuits won’t guarantee a restaurant’s success, but the folks prying them loose from their black pans sure look happy to be at Abigail’s. Up in Highland Park, the chef/ proprietor Michael Paulsen—a Culinary Institute of America alum and former executive chef at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest—has set out on his maiden voyage in choppy times, opening his hot new spot kitty-corner to the Ravinia Metra station. The before-6 p.m.-only reservation policy is a mystery and results in a complete bottleneck in the entranceway. And at the bar. And on the sidewalk outside. “I don’t think they were expecting so much business so fast,” says one hungry guy, eyeing those biscuits across the room.

No kidding. Word got around in a flash about Paulsen’s top-notch affordable American bistro comfort food and it became an instant magnet on the North Shore, where bargains are rarer than two-dollar bills. Abigail’s, named for one of his twin daughters (already in the works: Sophia’s), is a pretty room with well-spaced wood tables and pale green textured walls with vases of striking floral arrangements tucked into wall niches. The kitchen still has to iron out its timing so courses don’t pile up in front of diners, but servers have caught on to how to handle a full house with plenty of kids craving the big juicy burgers.

Appetizers roam all over the place: Some are not-so-little “little things” while others get tagged as “neither small nor large” and can swing either way as generous starters or modest-sized entrées. The first category includes a fine and truly small asparagus-watercress soup finished with a yummy salt cod fritter, and the massive Buffalo-style rock shrimp, so big it begs to be shared. And we do—contentedly dipping the chile-drenched fried shrimp and celery sticks into excellent blue cheese dressing. So does everyone else in the room.

From the second category, the luscious wild mushroom risotto topped with two seared scallops and a cap of mushroom cappuccino—really stealth foam—makes a good shareable starter or small entrée. Likewise, a dozen or so irresistible chive gnocchi come with a sizable hunk of tender braised pork shoulder. Both of these gems lurk in the middle section that tops out at $12. A beautiful 2007 Conde de Valdemar Rioja Spanish Rosé worked great about here, just $25 and as refreshing as the prices on the single-page wine list.

At a restaurant like this, you expect to see a good honest meat loaf. And, by golly, it’s here. Abigail’s savory veal loaf comes surrounded with rich potato purée and shiitake mushroom sauce. A fine bistro-style seared flatiron steak bathed in herb butter sported perfect haricots verts and skinny—but tepid—frites. The golden-topped Alaskan halibut looked great on its bed of earthy farro and black rice with tangerine sauce, but on one visit the kitchen overseared the poor fish, leaving it leather-bottomed. The next time, it was delightfully moist. To finish, I love talented pastry chef Kevin Jones’s soft pear-topped white wine cake with butter pecan ice cream. I loved it even more the night he surreptitiously substituted black walnuts for pecans. That’s my kind of chef.

 

THE SKINNY

ABIGAIL’S
493 Roger Williams Ave., Highland Park; 847-849-1009

MODEL MEAL Asparagus-watercress soup, veal meat loaf, pear white wine cake

TIP Free parking in the Metra station after 5 p.m.

HOURS Lunch Tuesday-Saturday, dinner Wednesday-Sunday

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $25 to $35

 

TAXIM
1558 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-252-1558

MODEL MEAL Baby okra, duck gyro, chocolate semolina halva with cardamom syrup

TIP Rooftop seating to begin in July

HOURS Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $35

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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